Shorts: The Wine Den (2)

A second instalment of the ode to my grandfather, Jon. Find the first part here.

Jane shared Jon’s life story at his funeral, which was printed on an A4 insert to the order of service. It covered some gaps in my knowledge about their past, so I’ve tried to incorporate a bit of it where it’s relevant.

Here’s part 2.

I drove us down the hill and away from the estate agents in the little Corsa, away from the city suburbs and onto a main road towards the nearby town. The journey was markedly silent, except for my occasional muttering when the car refused to stay in gear. It was probably my bad driving rather than the car. I put on some music with my phone to make it easier.

Even though I roughly knew the way, I nearly missed the turning. Just before a crossroads, Chuck indicated suddenly to stop and turn right. “Fuck, I always do that,” I said. My heart was beating so fast from the shock. I completed my awkward turn into the road we nearly missed and drove a short distance forwards. The road we turned into didn’t provide me with the comfort I needed. It was gravelly, lacking the layer of asphalt boasted by most roads. I worried about knackering the car’s suspension, or hitting the underside. Car rental companies were so pernickety about the tiniest everyday wear and tear. I pulled us to a stop just outside an opening in the dense hedges.

TRINITY was written on a piece of wood affixed to the waist-high front gate, scorched in, or however it’s done. The wooden equivalent of an engraving, sort of. My uncle’s handiwork, I believe.

We reversed back in the tiny road and rolled down a side fork, which quickly came to a dead end. I eventually compromised on parking, finding a ‘space’ behind a large red SUV. “Great,” I said, “let’s go then.” I forced some smiles and sunshine onto Chuck: ready.

I ushered him back up and around the hedging. He refused to go first as we neared the gate: fair enough. I pushed open the little gate and followed the path around to the left, Chuck trotting up the garden path behind us, not fussed about shutting the squeaky wooden gate behind him. I tutted at him and he went back with a sigh to fix his mistake.

“I hate these unadopted roads, I’m scared about the car now.”

“You don’t think we’ve damaged it, do you?”

“Do you?”

“No, don’t worry about it. You’re not the one that’s liable, anyway.” Chuck often felt guilt when he needn’t. It was sort of endearing, when it wasn’t annoying as hell.

“There’s usually enough parking,” I said, trying to change the subject slightly. “It’s never been this bad.”

Chuck had stopped listening anyway. He was studying the garden, which was all a-clutter with trinkets, mementoes, doo-dads. Colourful, glittery whirligigs that spun and twinkled with the wind and the sunlight, which had just re-emerged. A stack of chopped wood sat beside the door. An old watering can, a statue of a fairy, a couple of old cleaning sprays, a little oregano plant, a black beret, a larger top hat with red, white and blue ribbon attached, an old tin of shoe polish, a vase of flowers that were just past their best. All peering through from the window ledge at the arrivals outside.

“How long has it been since you were last here?”

“Always too long.”

“How long?”

I sighed with a drop of exasperation. He wanted me to give a number. “I don’t know, I really don’t. At least two years.”

“Why so long?”

“I met you,” I said wryly. “I don’t know, I’ve been busy. Time slips away.”

“Shall — I mean, can we go inside?”

“Yes, Jane should be… oh, let’s ring the bell, anyway.” I pressed the bell and an electronic chime sounded somewhere within, possibly upstairs.

We waited a little while. “Coming, coming, coming,” said a frantic voice from within, almost to itself. “Jon, can you get that?”

“I’m dans la toilette,” came the reply.

“Oh gawd, Jesus, Mary mudder o’gad…” Jane uttered, in a sitcom Irish accent to the hidden studio audience. Canned laughter sounded inside my head, reminding me that this was the funny part: the bit where you had to laugh.

The woman I knew to be Jane appeared, with her short hair in varying shades of grey and big, studious eyes clocking us through the window to my right, wearing a patterned jumper and bright red beret. Chuck jumped, making me laugh. Jane disappeared for a moment.

The door opened. “Hello,” she said in a jolly, yet slightly weary tone. Her smile was genuine, but the exaggeration of it was not – this was a house where to be on time is to be early. She cleared her throat and turned her gaze towards Chuck. “I’m Jane, how do you do.”

“Is this a bad time?” I asked.

“Don’t be silly, don’t be silly. You just seem to have caught Jon in one. Come in, please. You can put your coats, jackets, and so on just over there.” She indicated a set of hooks on the back of a door signed as the ‘Toilette’ above a French cartoon.

“Hello!” came a friendly voice from behind the door. “Donne-moi deux minutes. Je m’excuse.”

A couple of old photos of my grandfather Jon, in his younger days.

Chuck and I exchanged glances. His searched for some form of meaning, while mine merely offered apology for insufficiently preparing him for the lyrical madness. I wasn’t too apologetic, though. After all, he coped with me on a daily basis.

Jane stood in front of the left part of the house. “That way!” she declared, shooing us away from her.

A small step up to the kitchen, then another two into the living room, past the set of stairs. “I’ll give you a tour later. It’s not very big – you’ve already seen the entire ground floor. Upstairs is even smaller. We like to play sardines in here when Kit’s family comes to visit,” Jane said, “though last time they just stayed in a hotel. It’s too much for all five of them.”

“Where do they live? How often do you see them?”

“When was the last time?” Jane looked at me for the answer.

“I don’t know. I’ve seen Kit more recently. They live in Sweden,” I explained to Chuck. “It might be eight years now.”

“Do you mind if we sit for a bit? I have some lavender cordial made up in the fridge.” Jane turned to face me.

“Sounds good to me.”

“What’s lavender cordial?” Chuck whispered to me after Jane left the room to get it. “I mean, what does it taste of?”

“Kind of… lemony. Hard to describe, really.”

“Okay, but not soap.”

“No… who would buy that? It’s one of those really unusual flavours that even when you taste it you don’t really get. But it’s nice. I really like it. Jane introduced me to it. I’ve never seen it in any shops. Jane, where do you buy this?” I asked as she re-entered the room and sat herself on the couch next to me. Chuck sat on the edge of an armchair. He looked more than a little uncomfortable.

“Oh, there’s a health foods shop just down the road. They have all sorts in there, and sometimes I go in and ask for something I think is really obscure and if they don’t have it, they’ll get it. I tell you, you boys might enjoy London life but we have everything we need at our fingertips right here.”

I considered a retort but thought better of it.

Someone knocked on the glass at the front of the room, through which the bright sunlight filtered through hanging heliotropes, illuminating old greetings cards, gifts, letters, and political signs that had earned a spot in the light.

“Hello!” Jon said, entering the room from a door secreted behind a curtain just next to the door we came in by, causing both of us to stand for some reason. “Why are you standing up? Sit down, sit down.”

“I need to use the toilet, actually,” Chuck said, standing. “Where is it?”

La toilette est à travers la cuisine, et à droite.”

Jane huffed. “Oh for fuck sake Jon. He said…”

“Don’t worry, we both speak enough French to get that. Anyway, we passed it on the way in, Chuck. It had a sign on the door.”

Très bien,” Jon said. He wore a patterned waistcoat over a cream shirt, his facial hair only lightly groomed; most of it still a mousey brown, like mine. He sat in a big, low armchair in the far corner of the room, in front of a window. The room was cooler than I expected. Any time I’ve ever visited someone over the age of around sixty, the heating is usually on by September and turned up, I always presumed to help them forget that their circulation no longer reaches their extremities quite so successfully. Either through stubbornness or environmental conscientiousness, not this house.

“Oh, I forgot the biscuits. Just a minute, just a minute,” Jane stood up, unloaded the tray to put biscuits on it and hurried back to the kitchen.

Jon and I made ourselves comfortable for just less than the time it takes for a silence to need breaking, as Chuck came back quite quickly.


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